The Stanley Cup final matchup last year was the best thing to happen to the NHL in the United States since Wayne Gretzky dried his tears on the pier at Santa Monica, Calif., in 1988. The meeting of the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers, the third- and fourth-biggest media markets in the States, produced substantial ratings at the precise moment the league was renegotiating its U.S. TV rights. Bingo: a $2-billion (all currency U.S.) deal with NBC and Comcast. (Start your engines, conspiracy theorists.)
The Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks pairing in 2011, by contrast, has been compared by some to the Fox TV glowing puck as a broadcasting non-starter. Ratings from the local Vancouver market don't count in the U.S. Nielsen ratings. To Americans, Vancouver might as well be Vladivostok at this time of year. The Sedin twins, likely to win back-to-back Hart Trophies, rival the GOP presidential field on the invisibility factor. Boston is dropping as a major U.S. market.
Yet Boston is still the No. 7 market, a not insubstantial perch. The presence of an Original Six team from the Northeast usually spurs ratings. NBC is locked in for a decade and knows this could have been the Tampa Lightning and Nashville Predators instead. And a smiling Bill Belichick might be there at the TD Garden waving his black-and-gold pom-poms again.
Crucially for the NHL, having Vancouver deliver nightly viewership in the four-million-plus range in Canada (as it did for Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks) couldn't come at a better time with the Canadian TV rights auction just a few short years ahead. The major telecommunication companies in Canada are waging an intergalactic struggle for supremacy in the multiplatformed universe, so there might be as many as a half-dozen breathless bidders lining up for Hockey Night in Canada, the platinum asset of Canadian TV properties.
NHL suits in Manhattan are already hoping for a doubling of the CBC's $100-million-a-year contract that ends with the 2013-14 season. Who knows? A seven-game series that sets new ratings records for Canadian TV might just take some of the sting out of watching Hockey Napoleon's Retreat from his Sun Belt strategy.
Industry watchers got an exploratory glimpse of the possible NHL bidding strategies in the recent auction of broadcast rights to Skate Canada. BCE Inc., owner of CTV and TSN, is likely to go it alone on the NHL package. Most expect that CBC, knowing it can't pay the entire freight again, will need to form a partnership with one of the other telcos to stay in the hockey business.
So it was telling that the Corp., which has world International Skating Union rights, spurned Rogers in the bidding for the figure-skating rights, preferring the new Shaw and Global alliance as a dance partner. That strategy was seen as a rebuke for Rogers Broadcasting president Scott Moore, who until last fall, ran the CBC Sports operation. Moore had done considerable work in getting CBC Sports out of the ditch left by his predecessors, and the seeming lack of gratitude did not go unnoticed. In the end, CTV and TSN got back into figure skating for the first time since 2007, winning rights for the Canadian national championships and Skate Canada.
The next signpost in the run-up for NHL TV rights: the CFL's TV rights, held exclusively by TSN and RDS, which expire in 2013. For western-based Shaw and Global, trying to get into the sports TV game, this might be the hand on which to go all-in. For CBC, which lost the CFL to TSN, it might provide one final chance to pick sides before the battle that could knock them out of sports programming altogether.
LIVE IN AMERICA
Canadians have long been baffled at NBC's tape-delay strategy when it came to broadcasting the Olympics. Live has been the standard at the Games, first with CBC and lately with CTV and TSN. . Apparently, Fox TV agrees with Canadians. As part of its bid for the U.S. broadcast rights to the 2014 and 2016 Olympics, Fox is promising to go live. "It just makes sense," Fox Sports president Eric Shanks told USA Today. "You might as well try to reach as many people as you can, whether they're hard-core fans or prime-time viewers."
U.S. Olympic rights will be announced in June. The NHL, which has not committed to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, has no small stake in seeing its partner NBC retain the rights. That was thrown into doubt by the sudden resignation this month of Gary Bettman's good friend, long-time NBC executive Dick Ebersol. Sources tell Usual Suspects that NBC is planning an aggressive bid despite the loss of Ebersol. But industry sources suggest that, after $250-million in losses at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, NBC's bid will be less than Ebersol wanted.
The NHL already hates the dislocation and eight-hour time difference of the Russian city to the eastern time zone. Having to co-operate with Fox or ESPN after rejecting them for its own TV rights might prove key to the NHL's eventual decision.
Poor Alex Tagliani. The Canadian driver wins the pole position at the Indianapolis 500, and no one notices amid the Canucks clinching and Game 7 of the Boston and Tampa series. There were no hockey conflicts on race day Sunday, but Tagliani quickly fell back in the pack before crashing out on Lap 148. "Heartbreak for Tags and that man there, Sam Schmidt," ABC and ESPN announcer Marty Reid said. "But they can still hold their heads high. They came here with a new team, they got the pole and they ran strong."